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The Catholic Priest Who Discovered He Was a Jew
The Catholic Priest Who Discovered He Was a Jew
By Aviva Lori for Haaretz.com
Spertus presents the Chicago film premiere of Torn, Sunday, June 24 at 2 pm. This compelling documentary follows Father Romuald Waszkinel, a Polish Catholic priest whose life is turned inside out when he learns, on his mother's deathbed, that his parents were Jews who gave him to neighbors to save him from the Holocaust. At 67, he leaves Poland for Israel to explore his Jewish identity. He seeks employment, citizenship, and community, but finds his exceptional background presents unique challenges.
Read about Father Waszkinel in this excellent article just published in Haaretz.com, an English language Israeli newspaper. Then join us at Spertus in June for the film's Chicago premiere.
Jacob Weksler was raised a Catholic and became a priest. He later learned he was Jewish and came to Israel, where he found ultra-Orthodox relatives, a mixed welcome at a kibbutz ulpan and a confrontation with the Law of Return.
One night at the end of the winter of 1943, a frightened young woman knocked on the window of the Waszkinel family home in Stare Swieciany, a small town located not far from Vilnius, which was part of Poland at the time. The young woman quickly handed a carefully wrapped little bundle to Emilia Waszkinel. The bundle contained a newborn infant. That night had been preceded by several secret meetings between Emilia and Batya, the infant’s young mother. Emilia was unable to conceive (although nine years later she gave birth to a daughter, Janina) and Batya, who knew that her fate was already sealed, wanted to save her son at any price.
Emilia was afraid to take a Jewish child. She told the baby’s mother that if it were discovered, she would be killed. The mother told Emilia: “My lady believes in Jesus. Save this child, who’s a Jew like Jesus, and when he grows up he’ll be a priest and a teacher.” Emilia hesitated, gave reasons pro and con, and was reassured after embracing the child. Batya whispered the baby’s name and disappeared into the darkness.
Photo by Emil Salman “You had a very Jewish name,” the adoptive mother told her son when she revealed the secret 35 years later. “But I quickly forgot it. I was afraid it would be a death sentence. That’s why I didn’t want to remember anything about that night.”
It’s not at all simple to introduce Jacob Weksler, but the question of definition comes up immediately. Is he a Jew or a Christian? A Pole or an Israeli? Religious or secular? Does he or doesn’t he accept Jesus as a savior? The mind that wants unequivocal definitions, and is barely capable of containing contradictions, finds it hard to believe, but Weksler’s personality and his 69 years embody all those possibilities. Yes, he’s a Catholic priest, but he’s also a Jew who immigrated to Israel two and a half years ago - 34 years too late.
Photo by Emil Salman
In a small room in the basement of a house in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood, Jacob hugs the picture of his mother, Batya Weksler. A small and solitary picture that was rescued from the fate of his mother, who died in the massacres at Ponary. In his apartment in Lublin he dedicated a small part of the bookshelf to a collection of sacred items that are meaningful to both religions: The Shema prayer alongside a picture of Jesus, copper Hanukkah menorahs alongside Christian artifacts, and the pictures of his two mothers: Batya Weksler, who gave him life, and Emilia Waszkinel, the Polish woman who saved his life.
Weksler was given the name Romuald - Romek for short - from his adoptive parents, along with their family name, Waszkinel. Ostensibly a promising start: life, a home, a loving family. Much more than a Jewish child could ask for in 1943. But Romek never felt protected or safe. His genes were stronger than he.
“I always felt different,” he says, “in appearance and character. I was never similar to the children in the neighborhood, or to my close and distant relatives. They always shaved my head so people wouldn’t see my curly hair, and Mother would say: ‘You see, at least you don’t have lice.’ I had a serious stammer and I was a weakling. I had pneumonia and jaundice and I was often hospitalized and had acute anemia. The doctors said I should eat well.
Where was there good food? This was a very poor family. They gave me the same food they ate, and maybe even a little more. At an early age I lost teeth. Nor did I control my sphincter. If someone shouted at me, I would run straight to Mom with my pants full. I remember that in first grade I received a failing grade in art and I took it to heart so much that everything leaked in all directions. When a plane passed in the sky I would prostrate myself on the ground. I don’t understand why; after all, I didn’t remember a thing from the war.”
His Polish father was a simple laborer. His mother was a housewife. After the war, when Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union, they went to Poland and settled in a small house in Olsztyn, a city in northern Poland. “Mom had cows, pigs, chickens and a small garden, and Dad worked as a mechanic in a company and later as a driver. My family was wonderful. I also felt that they loved me very much.”
He experienced anti-Semitism for the first time when he was about 5-years-old. “It was already starting to get dark and I returned home with the cow we had received from UNRWA, and on the other side of the street stood two gentlemen, already well-soused, and I heard ‘Jew bastard.’ I didn’t understand that it referred to me, but when I looked at them I saw that they were cursing me. I ran home immediately; I was very scared, and I made in my pants, and I was unable to stammer anything until finally I said they had cursed me, and my first question was: ‘Mom, what is a Jew and why are they calling me a bastard? I have a mother and a father.’
“And my mother didn’t answer, she only hugged me and I felt that she was crying. But the question remained: Who did I look like? I looked everywhere for a similarity to Dad.
Once I stood in front of the mirror and suddenly I found something that reminded me of my father and I shouted: ‘Mom, don’t I look like Dad?’ She looked at me and was silent, and I said: ‘If it turns out that I’m a Jew, you’ll see what I’ll do to myself.’ For me it was as Sartre said: ‘It’s the anti-Semite who creates the Jew.’”
In order to convince himself that he wasn’t a Jew, Weksler decided at a very early age to find refuge in the Church and become a priest. “The happiest day of the week was Sunday. I would go to church with Mom and Dad. Mom held one hand and Dad held the other, with me in the middle. I also received a few coins for pocket money and put them on the priest’s tray and he caressed my head. That caress was worth everything. I was in seventh heaven.”
In high school he lost interest. He was busy with studies, learned to play the accordion, acted in the theater, had girlfriends and practiced with a teacher who taught him techniques to stop stammering. “Some of the matriculation courses were religious studies, but at the same time we learned the theory of Alexander Oparin, a Russian biochemist, who explained the creation of the world as an evolutionary process, and that shocked me so much I stopped believing in God. I continued to attend church in order not to disappoint my parents. I planned to finish matriculation and go on from there.
“And then, one day after the Christmas mass, I was walking in the street with our priest and he asked: ‘What will you do after matriculation?’ And I don’t know where it came from. I told him: ‘I’m going to study for the priesthood.’ When I heard myself I panicked and thought ‘What’s this nonsense?’ But in the evening I said it at home. I hoped it would make my father happy, but he looked at me and said, ‘What nonsense are you inventing?’ I told him that I’d already told the priest and he said, ‘So what if you said so, you’re not at all suited to that.’ And I opened my eyes wide and Dad said: ‘And what will we do with all the girls who are chasing you? Your world is music and theater, or maybe you’ll be a doctor. You like people.’ My father’s attitude made me very angry. I saw that he didn’t understand or know me at all. And it’s possible that the more he objected, the more determined I became.”
In October 1960, Weksler began to study in a seminary. His father took it hard. One Sunday he came to visit. “He was very serious and didn’t smile,” says Weksler. “After lunch we went to the church and he kneeled, prayed and burst out crying. I was very moved and asked why he was crying; I asked him to tell me if I’d done something bad. He said: ‘You didn’t do anything bad, but you didn’t do anything good either. Your life will be very hard.’ That Thursday he died.
He had a heart attack at the age of 52. My first reaction was that I had killed my father. That’s what I told my mother. I told the head of the seminary and said that I wanted to leave, so he suggested I wait a month and then decide. After a month I didn’t leave because I thought I had to stay just because of my father, in order to sanctify his name.”
Weksler completed his studies for the priesthood in 1966 and was ordained. Afterward he completed a doctorate in philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris. One of the outstanding advantages of studying for the priesthood surprised even him. He stopped being afraid of Jews after being convinced, as a result of texts he had read, that they hadn’t killed Jesus. “I was always afraid of Jews, for religious reasons, because they killed Jesus, and I had a very close relationship with Jesus. We had a symbiosis of suffering and pain.”
Weksler also learned about the genocide of the Jewish people very late. Only in 1968 did he find out about it, by chance. “Nobody spoke about it, not in elementary school, not in high school and not in the seminary, or later in the Catholic University of Lublin, where I studied philosophy. It was mentioned that people had died in the war, but not that they exterminated Jews only because they were Jews. On November 1, on All Saints’ Day, I went to the cemetery. I entered the plot of Russian soldiers, where it was written that they died between 1941 and 1945. I asked myself: But the war began in 1939, why does it say 1941 here? I returned to the university. I was already a lecturer in philosophy, and I told a friend - a lecturer in history - to help me understand, because there was a gap in my knowledge. He looked at me and asked whether I had heard of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. I didn’t know what he was talking about. He said that I was apparently really stupid, and gave me a book about Polish history. I read it all night long and cried, because then I understood that I could actually be a Jewish child. That was the first time I understood. And then, when there were anti-Semitic riots in Poland and they expelled Jewish students from various universities, several students came to us. I looked at them and thought that I resembled them. That was a clue to my secret.”
This clue soon took on urgency and gave him no rest. In 1975 his mother moved to live in Lublin and he began, gently and cautiously, to ask her about the war years. She refused to cooperate. Weksler saw that as another sign.
“One day I read texts to her by Jews who told about the war years. She started to cry and I asked her: ‘Tell me, am I a Jew?’ She asked, ‘Don’t I love you enough?’ and I fled from the room so she wouldn’t see me crying. When I returned, she said she didn’t want to hear any more about Jews. That was an answer for me.”
For three years Weksler played a game of cat and mouse with his mother. He asked questions and she fled. Until on February 23, 1978, the game ended. Weksler calls that day his second birthday. “I asked her who lived in our town in Lithuania? The town was a shtetl and most of the population was Jewish, and she began to enumerate all kinds of nationalities, but didn’t mention Jews. I asked her: ‘And Jews?’ She burst into tears. I took her two hands and said: ‘The time has come. This is my life, the only life I have, and I have a right to know the truth. I don’t love you less because of it.’ And then she said that I had wonderful parents who loved me very much and that they were Jews who were murdered, ‘and I only wanted to save you from death.’
“My first question was what my name was, and she said she didn’t know. I felt as though someone had thrown me out of a plane into the desert. On the one hand I suspected, I wanted to know. And on the other I was afraid and hoped she would deny it. And then she told me that my mother had convinced her to take me when she said that one day I would be a priest.
“I asked her what she knew about my parents, and she said only that my father was a very good tailor, and for that reason the Germans didn’t kill him right at the beginning, because he worked for them. She also said that there was another little boy named Shmuel in the house, and that the entire family found itself in the Vilna ghetto and from there the mother and the child were transferred to the killing fields in Ponary, and the father to the Stutthof extermination camp.” Emilia died in 1980, and in 1995 she and her husband were recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.
The son of Yankele the tailor
Weksler was miserable and full of self-pity. The secret weighed heavily on him. He was not yet ready to contain himself and his Jewishness. At first he decided not to tell anyone except Pope John Paul II, who was his lecturer on ethics at the university in Lublin. “He answered, ‘My dear brother,’ and promised to pray for me.” He discovered his family name by chance, with the help of a nun who came to him to confess and felt that he was in greater distress than she. “You don’t have to be afraid of anything,” she told him. “If God is with you, you’re fine.”
“I went back to my room,” says Weksler, “and on the table there was a note: ‘If the priest wants to tell me something else, maybe I can help.’ I went to her and she said: ‘The priest is a Jew, isn’t he?’ And I shouted at her: ‘How do you know? Is there something wrong with my nose?’ She reassured me and I burst into tears and told her what I knew about my parents.”
In 1992 the nun came to Israel, and one of her acquaintances raised the idea of looking for the organization of former inhabitants of Weksler’s parents’ home town. When she met with them and mentioned a tailor, someone shouted: ‘It’s Yankele Weksler.” In the town’s memorial book there is a picture of his mother, Batya, and it turned out that he has family in Netanya - a brother and sister of his father.
That year Weksler came to Israel and received the shock of his life. “At the airport I understood that my uncle is a strictly ultra-Orthodox Jew. I’m also a religious Jew, but from a different group. Already in the car he asked me: ‘How can you tolerate 2,000 years of hatred?’ I felt cold, because I had no answer. I told him I wasn’t 2,000-years-old, that I was only 49, and it was I who had looked for them and not they who had looked for me. Afterward he dragged me to the synagogue, put a prayer shawl on me and we prayed.”
After the visit to Israel, Weksler decided to adopt his father’s first name and to begin connecting to the little Jewish boy in his soul. Or as he says: ‘I decided to do something with my treasure. I wrote a letter to the pope and told him that I no longer wanted secrets and I had found my name and my family, and that I wanted to talk about it and shout it out. And since then I’m officially registered as Jacob Weksler and Romuald Waszkinel and I also changed my nationality and my parents’ names.”
At this point the revolution had not yet been completed, but doubts began. He encountered an impossible conflict - torn between the only homeland he had, his unreserved love for Jesus and the Church, and for the parents who had raised him; and alternately, something new and unclear that began to flow and blossom and connect to hidden parts deep within his soul. That shook his spiritual and ideological world, and he decided to take early retirement from the university where he had studied and taught.
“I couldn’t tolerate it any more. I wasn’t happy at the university or in Polish society. I wondered what had remained of the academic foundation laid by John Paul II. His texts about Jews and Christians didn’t bring about much change, either in the academic world or in people’s hearts.”
Would you think that way even if you weren’t a Jew?
“It’s hard to say, but probably not.”
Weksler discovered Catholic anti-Semitism. “I couldn’t stay in a university where they study the book by Felix Koneczny, a Polish historian who distinguished among the various races and placed the Jews on the bottom of the developmental scale. I couldn’t tolerate the fact that philosophy students read that as study material. In a conversation, the archbishop said to me, ‘But you’re a scholar, you can write about that.’ And I said: ‘I was saved by Poles, I don’t intend to save myself from them.’ If the slogan ‘Jews to the gas’ - which appears here and there on walls of homes - doesn’t shock my Polish friends, and the Church also demonstrates great tolerance for it, then who am I to be able to change that? I’ve written about that a number of times, but nobody even argued with me. And what happens on the soccer fields? Is anyone sued? How can you do that to the ashes of the dead?
“The Polish government is not anti-Semitic, and in official Church documents there is no anti-Semitism today. But still there’s competition over first place. One group says ‘We’re a chosen people,’ and the other group says ‘We’re a chosen people.’ And for almost 2,000 years this was the monster that threatened humanity. In fact, Poland should be an example to the entire world to show regret for what happened and uproot it like weeds.”
He didn’t resign from the university until 2008, when he retired and continued to serve as a priest in the Ursuline convent. But his life took a surprising turn. It had begun in 2000 with a chance encounter with Adina Steier, a tour guide to Poland and an officer in the Israel Police. “I arrived in Lublin with a group,” recalls Steier, “and we met Jacob, who told us his story, which really touched me. I remained in contact with him and when I arrived there the next time, he came again to speak to the groups. And from then on it became part of the visit to Lublin, and we became good friends. In 2005 he came to Israel on vacation and part of the time he was a guest in my home and met my family. During all those years he expressed his desire to immigrate to Israel after his retirement.”
Steier introduced Weksler to Yaakov Ganot, who worked for the Population and Immigration Authority. Ganot made an exception in his case and Weksler was granted temporary residency. In the autumn of 2009, he arrived here with one suitcase and high hopes.
Sunday prayer on the kibbutz
His first stop was Sde Eliyahu, a religious kibbutz in the Beit She’an Valley. The contact had been made by Ronit Kertsner, director of the film “Torn” and Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland. Weksler’s objective was to learn Hebrew in the kibbutz ulpan and become closer to Judaism. The encounter between Weksler and the kibbutz members was problematic. Weksler wanted to absorb the atmosphere, learn the prayers, become familiar with the festivals and the customs. The kibbutz members were suspicious and not sufficiently sure of themselves. Weksler asked them for permission to conduct mass at the Franciscan monastery on Sundays. The kibbutz thought he was overdoing it, and objected strenuously. The members called it idol worship and examined him carefully to understand if he was more a Jew or more a priest.
“We want to help him,” said kibbutznik Akiva Falk at the time, in the film, “but we also have responsibility toward the community. And to say that Jesus was also a Jew - that’s not Judaism.”
Weksler gave in and gave up prayer on Sundays, and remained at the ulpan for a year. Despite that, suspicion toward him did not disappear. “It’s very frightening, a man who’s a priest; we don’t know what his agenda is,” said Achia Amitai, the rabbi of Sde Eliyahu.
The one who went furthest was Dr. Michael Ben Admon, a philosopher. As quoted in the film, he said the unique possibility presented by Weksler - that a person, as in his case, did not choose his own fate but was forced by the situation to be a Jew and a Christian at one and the same time - was liable to undermine the foundations of Zionism. That’s how serious it is. “I wonder,” he said, “what will happen if we allow a generalization regarding that question. Can we still preserve and guarantee a Jewish state? Won’t that be the end of Zionism?”
Weksler didn’t come to them with complaints. “They were very good to me,” he says, “but you have to understand them; it’s related to 2,000 years of exile.”
Schudrich says that Weksler is a tragedy. A walking conflict. In Poland, he suffered because he’s a Jew; and here he suffers because he’s a priest. He can only dream of new immigrant status. The reason stems from the early 1960s and the High Court of Justice decision in the case of Brother Daniel Rufeisen, and the question of who is a Jew: someone born to a Jewish mother or someone who converted and is not a member of another religion. Weksler is angry at the decision about him regarding membership in another religion.
“But I didn’t choose my religion,” he says, “as opposed to Rufeisen, who converted to Christianity of his own free will as an adult. In my case everything was forced on me when I was a few days old. If I were to receive new immigrant status, that would be the realization of my mother’s dreams; she was a Zionist and wanted to travel to Palestine. That would have commemorated her name. The fact that the state is denying me this right - that’s not love of God, it’s simply fanaticism. It’s fundamentalism. I’m sure that the God of the Jews loves me as I love Him.”
The Interior Ministry maintains a dry formalism: “An examination of the details of the case indicates that the Law of Return does not apply to Mr. Weksler. Despite that, the Population and Immigration Authority, out of logical considerations and in light of all the special circumstances, decided to grant him temporary residency status. This status grants Mr. Weksler all rights in Israel and has no connection to the residency permit given to clerics in Israel.”
Weksler has meanwhile received permanent residency status and found work in the Yad Vashem archive. He is very pleased with what he is doing. He receives original documents, reads and catalogs them. “I have received a window, like Alice in Wonderland, though which I can read about things I knew nothing about.”
How do you see your future in Israel?
“I’m looking for a modest corner where I can live in dignity, research these papers and write something. And if only I could know Hebrew, at least 60 percent of it. That would be considered an achievement, because at my age it’s very difficult.”
Do you feel free of the Church now?
“I don’t feel free of anything and I don’t feel obligated to anything. I try to be a free man.”
What if you met an attractive woman?
“I was asked that question on the kibbutz. And my answer is that at my age, I need a caregiver more than a wife. Up until now I didn’t ask myself that question and didn’t think about it, but life is strange and unexpected; who knows?”
Do you regret anything?
“That I didn’t find out earlier who I am. When my mother told me, I could have been in Israel within two months, but I didn’t imagine that it was so easy to find some tailor from a small town. Had I done it 30 years ago, I could have spoken fluent Hebrew today. But instead I stayed at the university and didn’t do anything.”
Nevertheless, Weksler has a reason to be happy. He recently succeeded in moving up to the third level in the Hebrew language ulpan in Jerusalem, and he is thrilled.